Five opportunistic thieves have been jailed for more than 30 years after 40 anti-tank mines were stolen from a Ministry of Defence freight train.
The raid was "opportunistic" and the gang of six men soon realised they were "out of their depth" when they discovered they had stolen a stash of powerful explosives, police said.
The munitions, which fortunately were being transported without detonators, were on a train which left Cumbria at around 11.30am on Wednesday, October 24, last year.
Ten packages, each containing four mines, were reported stolen shortly after 7.30am the following day when the train arrived at Didcot, Oxfordshire. An investigation was launched, with counter-terrorism officers sent to various sites along the journey where the train had stopped.
Investigators searched a site in Dallam near Warrington, Cheshire, where the train had made an unscheduled stop due to a red signal at about 12.40am. It had stayed there for 16 minutes. When officers arrived to check the area, they had already been informed of damaged fencing nearby.
CCTV footage was examined and showed three figures near to the fencing at 12.51am and a van which drove away at 12.58am, a sentencing hearing at Liverpool Crown Court heard. At 5pm on Friday October 26, 28 of the 40 missing mines were discovered in undergrowth by a nearby rail embankment.
Information then came in to the police suggesting that Philip Yates from Birkenhead and Michael Hellon from Sheffield may have been involved in the theft. When officers went to see the two suspects they admitted they knew about the theft but tried to deny their involvement. They were arrested and Yates drew a map for officers to illustrate where the missing munitions could be found.
Phillip Yates, 29, of Church Street, Kris Black, 23, of Woodchurch Road, both Birkenhead, and David Ian Smith, 30, of Boothwood Close, Liverpool, all pleaded guilty to theft and possessing explosives.
Yates was jailed for seven years and three months and Black was jailed for five years and seven months. Smith failed to attend and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Leonard Ash, 50, of Beckwith Street, Birkenhead, was found guilty after a trial at Liverpool Crown Court of handling stolen goods and possessing explosives and offences under the Firearms Act. Michael Hellon, 31, of Hadfield Close, Sheffield, was also found guilty of handling stolen goods and possessing explosives at the same trial. Jason McKee, 27, of Valley Road, Bromborough, Merseyside, was found guilty of handling stolen goods and possessing explosives. He also pleaded guilty to offences under the Firearms Act. Ash was jailed for seven-and-a-half years, Hellon was jailed for five years and McKee was jailed for seven years and four months.